By Bhavan Bhavaguhan*
With the new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa winning the election in Nov 2019 almost exclusively with the majority Sinhala-Buddhist vote, Tamil peoples struggle for justice and equality in Sri Lanka has undoubtedly entered a grave and challenging phase yet again.
For anyone who followed President Rajapaksa’s campaign to presidency it is reasonable to believe that the President will be insensitive to aspirations of minority communities, especially Tamils. This is evident in the eight months into power, with appointment of presidential task force on archaeological heritage management in the East comprising exclusively Sinhalese officials, rapidly militarising the state administration through the appointment of retired armed forces officers to key posts with close associates of the president and the arbitrary withdrawal from UNHRC resolutions which Sri Lanka co-sponsored promoting accountability, reconciliation and human rights.
In this context parliamentary elections on the 5th Aug 2020 are significant and crucial for Tamil people in the North and East to (a) actively exercise their franchise to vote in large numbers (b) elect representatives who are pragmatic, moderate, committed, honest and capable of providing effective leadership, being able to competently articulate and propagate Tamils’ aspirations in Sri Lanka’s national political landscape and to the International Community.
Circumstances in the Island have changed irreversibly where it is absolutely necessary to educate and persuade the Sinhala masses on Tamils’ political aspirations and reposition the misguided political narrative articulated for decades by narrow minded Sinhala politicians, who merely focused on votes to accomplish their personal political ambitions. Tamil leaders of the past have also completely underestimated the importance of engaging Sinhala masses in the process of achieving Tamil political aspirations.
Current Rajapaksa regime envisages gaining maximum possible control over the parliament by leveraging the popularity within Sinhala-Buddhist vote block in the recent presidential elections. Tamils in Sri Lanka are almost certain to go through a phase of revived oppression reversing the ‘breathing space’ that was created in the last five years under the coalition government.
A fundamental rethink of the ‘Political Project’ for Tamil aspirations is required in the next decade, as an increasingly authoritarian regime flexing its muscles with the aim to consolidate power with executive presidency by reversing 19th amendment to the constitution which was enacted in April 2015.
Insignificant responses to date on Sri Lanka’s unilateral withdrawal from UNHRC resolutions spearheaded by the western countries, indicates diminishing interest from the international community. Considering the widely anticipated pro-Chinese alignment by the current Sri Lankan regime and other geo-political nuances – there is an urgent need for strategic collaboration coordinated by the Tamil Political Leadership with multilateral global institutions, the international community, and India in particular.
Notwithstanding the serious limitations with capacity and capability, following achievements by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) over the past decade are noteworthy – releasing of large volumes of Tamils land from military control, releasing number of Tamil pollical prisoners, de-escalating military presence in the North and East, negotiating an all-party agreement on the new constitutional proposal which includes devolution of land and police powers to provincial administrations, opening of the Jaffna International airport and although at early stages initiating a process of engaging the Sinhalese masses on Tamil aspirations for justice and equality.
In addition to the above mentioned, the most significant achievement by the TNA was to establish their credibility with the international community and India as a reasonable, sensible and pragmatic political alliance representing Tamils in Sri Lanka. This was achieved via carefully maneuvered negotiations and positions taken on key issues relating to Tamils such as accountability & reconciliations and political solution, which were viewed as reasonable and realistic.
This approach has enormously helped in keeping the accountability & reconciliations process alive to ensure justice for victims by investigating grave and mass atrocity crimes systematically committed against the Tamil people especially at the last stages of war – in the agenda of International community in multilateral forums such as the UNHRC. Further, has positioned Tamil political aspirations as a key agenda item in India – Sri Lanka bilateral dialogues which was evident in President Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi in his first state visit soon after assuming office.
Further it is also essential to re-evaluate the significance of Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 and its implementation by Sri Lanka, considering Rajapaksa regime’s growing proximity to China. India must ensure its foreign policy towards Sri Lanka is redefined to protect its regional and national security interests. In the meantime, TNA should assess current relationship between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and India, of each other’s relevance for potential transformation in the North-East of Sri Lanka for a political solution and encourage mutually beneficial direct investments from Indian investors.
It was TNA leadership’s sophisticated diplomacy – in dealing with the triumphant Rajapaksa regime and majority Sinhalese community soon after the end of war, and in parallel judiciously dealing with the international community including India, that positioned TNA as a trusted stakeholder in Sri Lanka. This paved the way for the establishment of the national unity government in which TNA played a critical role creating the much-needed break for the Tamil community. If not for this ‘breathing space’ – with the hostility displayed by the Rajapaksa regime after the end of war with rampant Sinhala militarisation and Buddhisisation of the Tamil dominated North-East, it was almost certain that the Tamil community was facing an existential threat.
Having said the above economic development and social well-being of Tamils in North and East post the civil war is an important area that requires urgent focus. Creating a largely self-sufficient and stable economic model is equally important as political aspirations for the Tamil community in the next phase of struggle.
The Southern parts of the country have seen rapid economic development and traditional Tamil areas were left behind. This is due to the absence of a robust local administration with skilled civil servants taking advantage of existing mechanisms available within Sri Lankan government, provincial councils and local government authorities. Catastrophic failure of the Northern Provincial Council, not addressing crucial livelihood issues of people of the North due to the misguided leadership under former Chief Minister Wickneswaran is an unfortunate classic example.
TNA has to formulate policies to address socio-economic issues by providing job opportunities for the youth and build grass roots institutions such as Cooperative Societies promoting micro finance options for small scale industries providing employment for locals. Further a robust local government network is to be established to attract investment and expertise from the Tamil Diaspora and international institutions to support the economic development agenda. It is important to consider strong partnerships with Multi-National Corporations to create opportunities for skilled work force by exploring shared service centre type of models that will prevent the ‘brain drain’ of Tamil youth.
Education standards of Tamil students including entrance to universities over the past decade has worryingly deteriorated which is evident from national education statistics. A good share of university places in North and East are filled by students from other parts of the country.
A fundamental re-look at the socio-economic and educational policies are required to address diminishing Tamil population in their traditional areas. Adequate employment, education and other livelihood opportunities are urgently required to support the Vanni region to assist the population severely impacted by the war to return to normalcy. There are other regions in the Eastern province with equally urgent needs. Similar farsighted measures are essential for a post war society to stabilize over a short period of time, improve their birth rate and maintain adequate growth of Tamil population. This naturally would be a far effective defense against state sponsored colonisation schemes.
It is inevitable Sri Lanka’s economy will suffer in the coming years as the country will struggle to meet its large debt repayment obligations predominantly to Chinese financial institutions. As international rating agencies lower country’s credit rating and economic outlook, institutions such as IMF and World Bank will impose tough conditions for their support, which will unavoidably push the Rajapaksa government further into Chinese control.
Given these anticipated bleak conditions with the country’s economy, it is important for TNA to focus on policies that will help Tamil community to move towards a self-sufficient economic model as the country falls into Chinse debt trap which will undoubtedly hurt the Tamil community as well, which is already in bad shape.
TNA leadership also must take a serious note of integrating Hill Country Tamils’ economic and social -wellbeing in their post elections programme for economic development. It is important that TNA adopts an inclusive approach with Hill Country Tamils who have been neglected for decades by Northern centric Tamil politicians, by establishing working relationships with Hill Country Tamil leaders.
Rhetoric and Reality – for anyone following the Tamil politics in Sri Lanka, the grave dangers with any suggested alternatives to TNA would be obvious. There are far too many fragmented players taking hard line and unpragmatic positions, who are unable to articulate a clear roadmap to achieve their political aspirations. These suggested alternative fringe parties have little or no credibility in neither Sri Lanka’s national politics nor with concerned international stakeholders including India. These players often adopt a strategy of criticizing TNA in every respect to gain self-centered political mileage without appreciating the ground and international realities of any kind.
Unsurprisingly these fringe groups opposing TNA are unable to agree on a common position amongst them on key issues concerning Tamils. This very vocal minority is dominant in social media platforms waging a malicious and false propaganda against TNA and its leadership – Mr. Sampanthan and its spokesperson Mr. Sumanthiran. This false propaganda appears to be enabled by a few media institutions and a small group of individuals largely in the diaspora with access to illegitimate funds from the past.
Support for any perceived alternative options to TNA, such as Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam or Former Chief Minister Wickneswaran’s parties will weaken the much-needed strong and united Tamil representation for any political negotiations with the Rajapaksa regime. In the unlikely event of a representative being elected from these so-called alternative parties, it will not serve the interests of Tamil people, as a lone single voice in the parliament will not have any significance. Further this will inadvertently pave the way for a change in narrative that hardline policies are gradually gaining support within Tamil politics, which will in-turn hurt prospects for any negotiated political settlement.
Rajapaksa establishment is aiming to end the ethnic identity-based politics as a strategy to suppress the Tamil National question and have flooded the forthcoming elections with far too many independent candidates along with the national parties aiming at splitting the Tamil vote base. Presence of far too many fringe players in the Tamil political landscape is an unnecessary distraction and Tamil people must cast their votes wisely appreciating the dangers posed by these insignificant groups and/or individuals.
So, what is the sensible choice available for Tamils in the North-East of Sri Lanka at the elections – TNA’s manifesto unambiguously calls for a political solution for legitimate Tamil aspirations through a constitutional arrangement on the model of federalism within the framework of a united and undivided Sri Lanka through a process of non-violent and peaceful negotiations. It also aims to create an alternative economic framework with a range of other measures to improve the socio-economic well-being of Tamil people in the North-East of Sri Lanka.
At this crucial juncture, it is important for Tamils to take advantage of the credible leadership provided by Mr. Sampanthan and TNA leadership, who are well respected in Sri Lanka within all communities, within the international community and India as a unifying force for Tamils in Sri Lanka. A strong and united Tamil representation in the upcoming parliament is the need of the hour, to progress with negotiations to achieve Tamil political aspirations.
Therefore, it is crucial that Tamil people in the North and East of Sri Lanka make the appropriate choice in casting their votes and elect TNA with a clear mandate keeping in mind the long-term interests of Tamils and the country.
Politics Is The Art Of Best Possible!
*The writer is an Analyst focussing on events and developments in Sri Lanka and India. He can be reached at [email protected]